It's a bit out of the way for most of those who live around the Salish Sea, but the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher building is worth a visit. Especially now, with an exhibition by a Brooklyn-based artist.
Lesley Dill’s Poetic Visions: from Shimmer to Sister Gertrude Morgan focuses on two bodies of work by the versatile artist: one is metallic sculpture and the other is an installation inspired by the late folk artist, preacher, and New Orleans phenomenon Sister Gertrude Morgan. This exhibit is what you dream those dusty Smithsonian displays could be. It is history gone wild; a show of visual might that makes one feel like a child entering Disneyland.
Everything is taller than us, a scale that creates wonderment. Giant banners circle the main galleries, calling out to viewers with their fire-and-brimstone texts. Large, black oilstick letters in antiquated and contemporary fonts tower as you stand near, morphing into something more like drawings of minimalist sculpture. The show offers this kind of magic.
Sister Gertrude Morgan heard voices. Born in 1900, she heard God tell her over the years to leave her family to preach, to open a mission and a home for orphans, to begin drawing in 1956, and to quit her art in 1974. On a pedestal sits a thick catalog that accompanied Morgan’s 2005 exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art. She painted to create visual aids for her preaching; my favorite image in the catalog is a paper "fan" she made where, once unfolded, each layer portrays a busy hospital floor.
Two pieces in the exhibit are dresses on forms; the one entitled Sister Gertrude Wedding Dress (2010, assorted fabric, 74 by 74 by 72 inches) was guided by the fact that Morgan believed she was God’s bride. Dill allows the thread used to sew brightly colored letters onto the white dress to hang down, alluding to Shimmer, a wall length piece of colored wire in the next room that mimics both a waterfall and the hair of a colossus. The "train" of this wedding dress becomes banners whose ends swoop up to the ceiling, creating a carnival or car lot feel.
Dill’s craft is amazing. You can’t tell what things are made of, which adds to the sense that, like faith itself, we just don’t know. Her deft use of materials, such as Tyvek, metal foil, organza, glass, steel, paper, and ink, allow her great freedom.
It is rare for visual artists to incorporate writing in their work without it feeling like a shortcut where instead of showing the artist decides to tell. Dill takes no shortcuts. She uses words by some of her favorite writers — Emily Dickenson, Salvador Espriu, Tom Sleigh, Katherine Ann Porter, and Franz Kalfka — as material to render transcendental experience into form. “I think that words are wings; words lift us,” says Dill.
The artist’s intelligence, aesthetic sense, and work ethic are steady as a drunk’s shaky hand after a belt. Dipping equally into darkness and light, evil and good, her obsessive fabricating keeps what could overwhelm one at bay. In a documentary that loops in a gallery of the museum, Dill refers to her metallic sculptures by calling obsessiveness “…a kind of devotion … touching the work, touching the foil, twisting the wire over and over and over again … the repetition of labor is also soothing and it marks time … it is a marking time kind of labor.”
I tire of women making art dresses, but these by Dill do not bother me one bit since they are soaked in context. Dill’s work actually seems strengthened by having a theme versus her exhibits of singular works; a theme allows her to go deeper. She is also generous in that her work is very open and approachable — meaningful without the least bit of pomp.
Lesley Dill’s biography reads like the "art media" entry in a Thesaurus. She creates sculpture, performance, opera, photography, printmaking, drawing, installations, community projects, and billboards. The documentary reveals her prolific ways as we witness art studio walls behind her on different interview days fill with new and tantalizing stuff. From the looks of things, she never sleeps.
If you haven’t visited the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher building, opened in late 2009 and designed by Seattle’s Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects’ founding partner Jim Olson, now would be a great time. Once in Bellingham, stop at Casa Que Pasa for their famous potato burrito to keep your body energized and warm. When you see a building with a “spectacular, translucent wall 37 feet high and 180 feet long,” stop to experience our region’s latest world-class museum.
If you go: Lesley Dill's Poetic Visions: From Shimmer to Sister Gertrude Morgan, at Whatcom Museum Lightcatcher Building, 250 Flora St., Bellingham. Open noon to 5 p.m, Tuesday-Sunday through March 4, 2012. Details here. General admission is $10; discounted to $5 on Thursdays. The museum is holding its Native Art Market & Family Activity Dec. 10-11, when admission is only $3.